Road trips with kids…even though we’ve done it several times, it’s still feels like quite the ordeal each time. And planning them is one thing I’m pretty Type A about, but it’s certainly worked to our advantage.
Our trips definitely don’t always go according to plan, which is to be very expected, but being prepared has been so helpful to our family and gives us a lot more confidence than we used to have!
My family lives in Northwest Ohio, so the 10-12 hour drive is starting to become very normal for us and we don’t dread it like we used to!
So I’m going to break down my top tips, both sleep-related and not, when it comes to road trips with kids, based on what has worked with our girls.
When to Leave
Mid to Late Morning/Into Bedtime
We tend to leave mid to late morning when we go on long car rides. We try to plan our drives around sleeping and eating, and this has worked the best for us.
When one of our kiddos is still taking a morning nap, we aim to leave right after that morning nap so we know they get one solid nap that day (because car naps aren’t always awesome!). Then we try to drive about an hour before making our lunch stop.
Now that neither of our girls take a morning nap, we aim to leave mid-morning so we can get a good hour or two under our belts before lunch.
And if the drive is long enough, we do bedtime in the car and make the sleepy transfer once we arrive to our destination. It’s not always perfect, but it definitely works for us!
Middle of the Night/Early Morning
Let me start by saying, this would NOT work for our family. Jason and I are definitely more night owls than we are early risers, so driving in the middle of the night/super early in the morning would not be safe for us.
Plus pulling the kids out of bed in hopes that they’ll fall back asleep in the car terrifies me!
That being said, it WORKS for many families! We have friends who always leave super late/early and they love it! Their kiddos sleep most of the time, they can drive longer stretches, they don’t have to worry about traffic, and then they arrive and can recover.
Structuring the Drive
Like I mentioned before, we structure our drives around sleeping and eating. Since having two kiddos, we plan around the baby’s schedule, as the older is able to be more flexible.
The great thing is, newborns are usually AWESOME car sleepers. When our girls were newborns, we would simply aim to leave shortly after nursing and burping so they can get some awake time in the car but then quickly and easily fall right to sleep.
Then once they woke up, we’d try to make it another 10-20 minutes or so and then stop to feed them, burp them, change them, move around, and then back in the car and repeat!
It can seem more stressful to travel with a newborn, as you feel like you need more outfits, there’s not much you can do to entertain them, you’re still figuring out feeding, they’re not yet predictable, etc., but it’s very possible!
Babies Taking Multiple Naps
For long drives, we aim to leave after the morning nap. Knowing that some car naps are not super long or restorative, it helped me knowing that one nap of the day was nice and solid at home.
We then plan for at least one more, if not two naps, to be on the road – it certainly helps pass the time!
[My oldest was a champ of a car sleeper and we could count on at least 45 minutes, if not more, but our second is not so great and generally only sleeps for about 20 minutes. But 20 minutes is better than nothing!]
Babies and Toddlers on a One Nap Schedule
Sleeping in the Car
First of all, don’t expect sleep to be perfect, or long, or to happen right on time!
Some kids are just better car sleepers than others, and there’s not much we can do about it; like I mentioned above, my oldest was a great car sleeper, but my youngest has a tougher time.
When we know we will be in the car for nap time or the start of bedtime, we bring a portable sound machine to try to help the environment sound similar to home, and to help mask any loud noises outside or our voices as we drive. Cars thankfully already provide some white noise with the natural rumble on the road!
I am also a big fan of having a nap and bedtime song, so when it’s time for sleep, we sing the girls’ song on repeat to help them fall asleep.
To help make the bedtime transfer go more smoothly, we get the girls in their jammies and sleep sacks at our final stop. We love Woolino’s 4 Season Ultimate Baby and Toddler Sleep Bags, and one extra perk is that they have a slit that the car seat buckle can go through.
Not only does that make the transfer go more smoothly, but it helps alert their body and mind that sleep is coming, even if it’s in a different environment than usual.
Remember, sleeping in the car is not going to be as consistent or restorative as sleep at home, but don’t let that keep you from family adventures!
Before having kids, Jason and I would pretty much just stop to go to the bathroom and then we’d keep on going. We often packed our meals, but even when we bought them, we’d eat them as we went…efficiency, baby!
With kids, that’s just not how we roll anymore. We stop about the same number of times as we did before, but now our stops are LONG! And quite honestly, it makes the drives much more bearable for Jason and me then they were when our stops were no more than 10 minutes.
At each stop, we either have a meal or a snack. We always pack our meals and snacks, as we want to be able to stop wherever we need to rather than plan our stops around what restaurants or fast food joints are around.
So unless it’s super cold or rainy. we have a little picnic on the grass or sidewalk at a gas station and then let the girls run around and play! Or we eat in the car and let the girls roam the front seats and pretend they’re driving.
Our stops are all about an hour long.
Our final stop is always our dinner stop. We eat, let the girls run, and then get them ready for bed, pajamas and all. The girls sleep for our final stretch and we transfer them when we arrive.
Favorite Car Toys and Activities for Babies and Kids
In Northern Virginia, most places are 20-30 minutes away, so my girls are used to that length of a drive and we do not regularly keep toys in the car; so they can easily keep themselves entertained for that long.
So we actually start our road trips and long drives without playing with toys, as I find that if we pull them out too quickly, we go through them way too quickly and they’re left wanting more.
I pack the toy bag and I try to choose toys I know both girls love and can use pretty independently. And I make sure the bag is very accessible to the passenger so we can hand them back, as necessary.
Here are our road trip favorites:
We bring SO MANY BOOKS!!!
I often have Olivia pick a handful of books she’d enjoy for the ride, but I also grab a handful I know she can “read” to herself. She goes through books quickly, so I bring a hefty stack!
When our kiddos are babies, especially, the books that have textures, velcro, keys hiding, etc., are also a win when we’re trying to entertain them in the car.
If you’ve not checked out the Melissa and Doug Poke-a-Dot Books, they’re so fun! My 17 month old and 3.5 year old LOVE them, and so do the 7 and 10 year old we live with!
Me Reader Electronic Reader
Olivia (3.5) got a set of Me Readers for Christmas this year and we love them! She is very capable of selecting her books and knowing what buttons to push next, and it’s a great way to engage her in books when we can’t read to her.
I get carsick trying to read, plus I don’t want to get stuck reading books an entire day!
I love coloring with my girls, but I’m just not brave enough for flying, broken, or peeled crayons in the car yet. So this drawing board is perfect and both girls love taking turns with it.
A great quiet and clean activity for road trips, church services, restaurants, etc, are Melissa and Doug’s Water Wow! activity books.
The girls love playing with babies, so we bring one for each so they don’t fight over them.
Now that Olivia is older, she enjoys some good old-fashioned car games! We play I-Spy quite a bit, we look for different letters or numbers on the road signs, different colored vehicles, etc.
We all know electronic toys capture our kiddos’ attention, but I don’t love how mesmerized they get with the flashing lights and sounds without having to interact with them too much! Plus as soon as they’re pulled out, it’s all the kids want, and the sounds can drive parents crazy real fast.
So we keep the electronic toys as the emergency, we-just-need-20-more-minutes, toys. This is generally a toy remote control and a music maker.
Screen Time on Road Trips
Let me start by saying I am not against screen time. I think screen time is a tool that can be super helpful when used well, but I also think it’s too easy for kids to rely on them for entertainment, and they are also a tough tool to build boundaries around.
And I don’t want my girls relying on screens for long drives or melting down when screen time is over. So we have not yet opened up that world with our girls, though we may very well one day!
All that to say, you can absolutely do long drives with kids and not use screens, and still survive! If screens are not an option, they don’t know any better.
Road trips with kids can definitely be overwhelming. There is a lot more planning involved and you never quite know what will happen. But it’s absolutely possible and makes for some great memories!